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Novato, California 94947
USA

Mark Summer, solo cellist, composer and co-founder of Turtle Island Quartet. Percussion and pizzicato cello techniques. Sheet music and lessons available for purchase. Winner of two Grammy awards (2005 and 2008), nominated four times, most recently in 2014.

Blog

Occasional blog posts by cellist Mark Summer.

Keeping our heads up and our hearts open in interesting times

Mark Summer

Keeping Our Heads Up And Our Hearts Open In Interesting Times

Since it’s the new year, and there’s this tremendous feeling of uncertainty swirling around me, I’ve thought a bit about aspirations (the word feels more open-hearted than the more calculating “resolutions"). As we all know, we have a new president on deck; that thought is accompanied by deep feelings of fear, at least for me. I want to talk about how to go forward with our creative lives, thoughts on growing and grooving on the cello, and how to ultimately thrive in what are certainly interesting times. Staying open while being vigilant is an aspiration that has tremendous power to energize us and sustain us for the difficult times ahead.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to take a longer perspective on things. It’s not like it’s ever been easy to be an artist in a capitalistic country. It’s easy to take the distress personally and feel like it’s your fault that things are so challenging. But when you reflect upon it, musicians have always had to pay our dues and have felt the stress of fighting to be heard amidst the din of society. Our culture rewards us by telling us that we are “special,” and in exchange for that praise robs us of our due financially. I’m guessing many of you have had the experience of being asked what you do for a living, and receiving an response of envy by the questioner only to discover that they are earning a good living from their livelihood while we struggle to cover our bills and feed our families.

The music business has its own woes. I had a good talk with guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart Andress after a recent recording session for an artist they were producing. I hadn’t seen either one of them since we toured extensively some 20 years ago. Patti spoke of the days when record sales were a significant portion of her and Tuck’s income. That’s completely changed. Now they, like most musicians earn the bulk of their livelihood from playing concerts. That means many, many days and nights away from partners and loved ones. It can be difficult and lonely, as well as exciting and energizing. But touring is not an easy life.
If you want to get off the road, as I’ve often been tempted to try to do, earning a living in music means teaching, both privately and in classes (in my case, improvisation workshops, sometimes in conjunction with classical cello camps). This past summer I taught at the International Cello Institute at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Eugene Friesen’s Creative Cello Summit in Vermont, and Cello Seminar at Interlochen Academy of the Arts in Michigan, as well as playing concerts with 8 time Grammy-nominated jazz singer Tierney Sutton. In addition, I publish my own music as downloadable pdfs (marksummer.net/store)and offer private and Skype lessons, as well as performing in the San Francisco Bay Area in many different guises including a solo cello presentation and a duo with pianist Ken Cook.

 Ken Cook, piano, with Mark Summer at Silos, Napa, Calif., in 2016. Photo credit: Silos, Napa.

Ken Cook, piano, with Mark Summer at Silos, Napa, Calif., in 2016. Photo credit: Silos, Napa.

Focusing on your unique talents and skills and developing your own musical viewpoint and vision is key to forging a satisfying, musically creative life. This takes time and dedication and equal parts of patience and determination. 

One of the most important things during turbulent times is to cultivate our enthusiasm for creative expression, the drive that got us into this crazy business in the first place. Now’s an excellent time to go out and attend concerts, listen to as much music that inspires you as possible, and spend quality time really delving deep into ourselves, into our music. There’s so much negative reporting in the news right now that it can dominate our lives and sap all our creative energy. We simply can’t afford to let that happen. Consider composing, as a healthy response to the current political and geopolitical mess we find ourselves in. Singing our hearts out, whether with our voice or our instrument or both helps to ground ourselves, to get in tune with and be one with the moment, the only moment there is, the rich and ever present Now.

These are strange, rich and potentially artistically fruitful times. I believe we are being called to act, to explore our true, expansive selves and to allow our hearts and minds to open up to the challenge of these times. It’s imperative that we make space for self-reflection; to take the time to think for ourselves. What do we want? How do we feel about what’s happening around us?

There is a tremendous need for our gifts at this time; to create soul nurturing music both for our selves and for this troubled world. Celebrate your unique gifts and share your creative energy with those around you; the world is, more than ever, in desperate need of what is positive, moral, and that which will help light the way through what could be very dark and dispiriting times. Cultivate that light, and nurture your precious gifts of self-expression. Trust yourself and connect with other like-minded musicians and artists. Celebrate your passion, expand your repertoire of healthy responses to stress, and learn how to thrive in the now, these most “interesting” of times.

—Mark Summer